The Bergen County Education Association (BCEA) hosted a luncheon for the county’s superintendents and local presidents on Sept. 26 to present an introduction to ensuring safe schools for all students and staff, including those who identify as transgender. BCEA invited sixth-grade Teaneck teacher Dr. Amy Moran, Pascack Valley Superintendent Eric Gundersen, and Northern Valley Regional High School senior Jackson Evangelista to make a presentation focused on students who are transgender.
The luncheon is an annual event that is partially funded through an NJEA PRIDE in Public Education grant.
A discussion of safer schools for transgender students is nothing new for Bergen County. In 2015, the Pascack Valley Regional High School District made national news for its development of a policy for transgender students.
Nor is a discussion of policies to protect transgender students anything new for educators throughout New Jersey. On July 21, Gov. Chris Christie signed S-3067/A4652, a law requiring the New Jersey Department of Education to “to assist schools in establishing policies and procedures that ensure a supportive and nondiscriminatory environment for transgender students.”
“When we were considering what topic to address at our luncheon, we were aware of the law, but we were also aware of the stories we were seeing on the news that were reducing the needs of transgender people to a one-dimensional fight over bathrooms,” McBride said. “We knew how upsetting these stories had to be to our transgender students, and we worried about the impact such stories could have on how cisgender students learn misinformation about gender identity.”
Cisgender is a term to describe people who are not transgender. “Cis” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as,” and is an antonym for “trans.”
“If you think you don’t have any transgender, gender nonbinary or intersex students in your schools, it’s because your schools aren’t safe enough for them to come out, not that there aren’t any transgender, gender nonbinary, or intersex students in your schools.” – Dr. Amy Moran
Moran, Gundersen, Evangelista and his adviser at Northern Valley, Marisa Januzzi, collaborated to develop a presentation for the luncheon.
They are also collaborating on a longer feature article for the December NJEA Review on students who are not cisgender. What follows here is only a brief overview of what they had to say.
Moran is the adviser to the SPECTRUM, the LGBTIQA+ Alliance, at Teaneck High School. She cited data from various sources, including the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, indicating that 3 to 5 percent of students do not identify as cisgender.
“That’s 36-60 students in a 1,200-student high school,” Moran said.
“If you think you don’t have any transgender, gender nonbinary or intersex students in your schools, it’s because your schools aren’t safe enough for them to come out, not that there aren’t any transgender, gender nonbinary, or intersex students in your schools,” Moran said.
Gundersen recounted the story of how Pascack Valley developed its transgender student policy.
The policy as initially introduced had to be tabled and reworked as the board realized that its heavy focus on discussing the legal aspects of the policy crowded out the opportunities to educate the community on what it means to be transgender. The district, which received national attention as it developed its policy, was seen to be at the forefront on providing safer spaces for transgender students. But Gundersen believes that there is much more to be done.
“I continue to question whether or not we are truly a safe enough environment as a school to be welcoming to students to come to us to share what they are struggling with,” Gundersen said.
Evangelista’s presentation was the highlight of the luncheon.
Evangelista identifies as a transgender student who began the process of coming out to his family and friends in the summer of 2015 after his freshman year. He discussed his early struggles to resist being made to conform to a female understanding of gender and his gradual realization the pronouns “she” and “her” did not apply to him.
He tearfully recounted the story of coming out to his parents, but acknowledged their loving response.
“My mom reached for my hand and she told me, ‘we love you and we are always going to be there for you,’” Jackson said. “It was very comforting to hear that from my parents. The fact that they are trying to understand me when I tell them, ‘I am a boy, and I want to be your son’ is the most you can ask of someone.”
Demonstrating continued love and support, his parents were with him at the BCEA presentation, beaming with pride.
The December NJEA Review will recount Evangelista’s story in his own words.